Who was it who decided that January was a good time to start a new year? It’s dark, cold, miserable. We’re feeling skint and unhealthy. And we are forced back into commuting armpit-to-nose with strangers again.
But hey! A new year has begun, which means it’s time to stop thinking about the grimness of the present and start planning what you want to do and who you want to be in 2019.
In other words, it’s time to project ourselves into the future that we want. A future in which we are more productive and smarter and richer and fitter and thinner and happier. Where our inbox is at zero, our houses are spotless and our minds are serene.
Our culture, economy and shared belief system is a majority shareholder in the business of individual achievement. In addition to performance objectives at work, we are encouraged to set and reach targets on our own time too.
A profitable side-hustle. 10,000 steps. More followers on Instagram. 5-a-day. A faster 5k. A BMI of less than 25. Find The One. Take a course. Get a promotion. Meditate daily. Run a marathon. Write a book. Buy a house. Learn French. Finally get round to reading Kafka/Tolstoy/Joyce. Become your own boss.
What happens when you achieve these goals? You are rewarded by a fleeting moment of feeling good about yourself. An hour or two if you’re lucky. Once it fades, you set new goals and start again as if nothing ever happened.
What happens if you don’t achieve these goals? You feed the voice inside of you that tells you that you’re actually a bit worthless. That you’re quite possibly a waste-of-space failure who will amount to nothing. You get ‘FOMOMG‘ (fear of missing out on your goals)
Early psychologists established that our behaviour can be shaped by rewards. They studied this by putting pigeons in boxes, training them to peck a bar to receive pellets. By changing the timing and schedule of when the pigeons got the pellets, they were able to influence how quickly and how often they pecked the bar.
These days, we create our own boxes by believing that we can achieve our way into feeling good about ourselves. That we are not a failure as long as we are progressing in some way. We set the bar with our goals. We tap, tap, tap at the bar in the hope that we will achieve the goal.
Setting a goal and working towards it makes our dopamine levels rise. This keeps us striving for distant rewards.
This is all fine if it works for you.
But what if it doesn’t?
2018 was an amazing year in which I achieved a long list of life goals. This included finishing my postgraduate diploma, starting a great new job, and folding 1000 origami cranes for my wedding (oh, and getting married, obvs).
I pretty much levelled-up at adulthood. It wasn’t just for the sake of it. I wanted to do everything that I did. I even enjoyed it (turns out getting hitched really is the best day of your life).
But I didn’t feel a lasting glow as a result of all of the achievement. In truth, I was stressed and exhausted much of the time. Too many weekends were spent on my sofa in a depressed, hungover heap.
If I were a protagonist in a Shakespearean tragedy, my fatal flaw would be believing that happiness lies in achieving things.
Unfortunately, knowing this hasn’t changed my behaviour much.
This is how it tends to go: I find myself having bad feelings, so to make myself feel better I set ambitious goals and steamroller towards them (hello dopamine my old friend).
I then find myself overstretched, stressed and depressed.
Then I realise I’m self-destructing, so I clean my slate for a fresh start.
I feel amazing. Until I don’t.
So to make myself feel better: more goals!
New Year Resolution Fever leads me to suspect that I’m not alone here.
We all know the quotation about how the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing and hoping to get a different result.
In fact, I’ve even written this post before. It did sink in for me that self-improvement makes you worse. I stopped consciously believing that I had to constantly work to make myself a better person. But I kept chasing the high of achievement. It’s like I quit smoking but kept chomping on nicotine gum.
This needs to change.
I’ve started to wonder…
Are you even really living if your life is measured out in SMART goals?
What if every day was a blank canvas, rather than a pre-set to-do list?
What is it like to be guided by what you feel like doing, rather than what you feel like you should be doing?
This is why in 2019 I’m going to pursue nothing. No personal goals, objectives or pipe dreams.
Instead, I’m going to do things that feel rewarding in and of themselves. Even if these things will impress precisely no-one or teach me nothing new.
I’ll do them when and how I feel like doing them.
And I’ll stop if I can’t be bothered with them any more.
Let’s see what happens.